The Rare Books and Manuscripts collection includes all printed matter (books, ephemera, periodicals, maps, picture books) published in Latvian up to 1850, in Russian up to 1800, in other languages up to 1700, and works printed after the listed years with particular traits of rarity (banned and repressed publications, first editions of classic works, luxury editions and imprints of polygraphic interest, items with notes by authors or distinguished persons, etc.). The manuscript collection is a compilation of handwritten texts of cultural and historical significance: manuscripts, letters, photographs, and other items from personal archives.
The National Library of Latvia separated its oldest and most valuable printed works from the core book collection in 1951. Over time, they have been supplemented with purchases and gifts, mainly from individuals. Currently, the Rare Book and Manuscript collection contains more than 54 000 items of various types of printed and handwritten works.
The oldest Latvian imprints form the foundation of national publishing, starting with the oldest ones – the Church handbook of 1586/87, up to the stories translated by Ansis Leitāns, 19th century calendars, books of practical advice, small leaflets with song lyrics, government-promulgated laws and other texts. The foreign-language books printed in Latvia prior to 1830 – early imprints in Polish, German and Latin – are important for research into Latvian cultural history.
A special group consists of printed publications about Latvia. One of them – Cosmography by S. Münster (Basel, 1550) – contains the oldest known text in Latvian – the Lord’s Prayer of J. Hasentöter. The early imprint collection includes 63 incunabula (books published before 1500). Many of them came to the national collection from the libraries of individuals and institutions abandoned during World War I. The oldest incunabulum is the book Spiegel der Volkommenheit (Mirror of Completeness) by Heinrich Herpf, printed by Mainz printer P. Schöffer, a successor to Johann Gutenberg, in 1466 (?). Incunabula items worthy of mention include publications well known to scholars, such as the Latin and German versions of the Bible of Nuremberg printer A. Koberger (1478 and 1483).
The Rare Books collection holds 287 palaeotypes (1501-1550 editions), including collections of 16th century printers – Plantin, Elsevier, the Royal Printing House of Paris and other firms.
The Rare Books collection contains important landmarks in Russian publishing. The collection also holds newer and brand new books with various rarity features: publications formerly banned by censors, such as one of the few known copies of Līgo (1874), songs collected by Baumaņu Kārlis (after Russian censorship authorities burned the print run), counterfeit Latgalian books from when printing in this language was prohibited, first editions of works by world literary icons (J.V. Goethe, I. Kant, A. Pushkin, etc.).
The reading room is also compiling a collection of books printed by Latvian exiles in refugee camps up to 1950. The Manuscript collection currently holds more than 400 personal archives and collections – published and unpublished essays, manuscripts of literary works, letters, photographs, etc.